Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Six Degrees of Separation

This Australian actor is my link to Kevin.
They say there are only six degrees of separation between Kevin Bacon and everyone else.  Turns out to be true for me.  With names concealed to protect the innocent and the famous, here it is:  Me TO my first cousin TO her college friend TO a famous film director TO Anthony LaPaglia TO Kevin Bacon.  

This connection to Kevin is pretty cool, but not nearly as exciting as my less than six degrees of separation to Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of the book Half of the Yellow Sun, among others. It just so happened that I received this book in a Christmas-time used book swap with members of my English book group here in Spain.  The book was contributed to the swap by an English woman who I barely know and ended up in my hands by chance.  It sat on the shelf for a few months, ignored, until I picked it up in a fit of procrastination a few weeks ago. Turns out it is wonderful.  Turns out the author came to Connecticut from Nigeria, to study.  Turns out she did her master's degree at Yale, in lovely New Haven. Turns out she was in class there with a woman who I worked with at CIRA. I probably walked by her on the street and never even knew. It is a small world after all.

All of this serendipity is fun, but thanks to my friend April who directed me to Chimamanda's TED talk, turns out the connection is even better than fun - turns out Chimamanda's work is relevant and useful to my own.  What does a novel about a middle-class Nigerian family's experience of civil war in the 1960s have to do with incarcerated women in CT?  The specific topics are distant.  But, as she articulates so beautifully in the TED talk, the approaches are not. We're both in the business of telling stories and her words articulate the importance of this task.

She begins the talk by identifying herself as a storyteller and goes on to discuss the dangers of a single story. The single story usually reflects the stereotype and is not necessarily false, but it is incomplete.  Spaniards dress in red, fight bulls, dance flamenco and drink sangria.  True, some do.  But most do not. In Galicia, everything is green, there are no bulls, the local wine is white and the folk music centers on the bagpipe.  Ain't I a Spaniard?  (Sorry, Sojourner.)

I don't have to tell you the single story about prison in the US, we all know this one by heart. I say prison, you think what? Violence, single file lines, boredom, heavy metal doors, loneliness. OK, but what else?  As Chimamanda says, "Multiple stories matter."  In the multiplicity, we uncover the varied individuals and experience that make up a group.  We see others for who they are and we see ourselves. One story is never enough.